In Hemant Soren’s Jharkhand, the politics of tribal identity sharpens

Two years after it came to power, Hemant Soren has displayed political initiative with his clear focus on tribal identity-based politics — but this political initiative itself is now possibly generating friction, both within his alliance and with the opposition
Soon after taking over the reins of power in December 2019, Soren said that in his second term as CM, he wanted to give Jharkhand the direction it needed to fulfil the objectives with which the tribal-dominated state was carved out of Bihar on November 15, 2000. (PTI) PREMIUM
Soon after taking over the reins of power in December 2019, Soren said that in his second term as CM, he wanted to give Jharkhand the direction it needed to fulfil the objectives with which the tribal-dominated state was carved out of Bihar on November 15, 2000. (PTI)
Updated on Oct 11, 2021 11:08 AM IST
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Ranchi: Take these seemingly disparate developments in Jharkhand — and spot a common pattern.

An all-party delegation from Jharkhand led by chief minister (CM) Hemant Soren met union home minister Amit Shah on September 26 and submitted a memorandum in favour of a caste census.

A key demand in the state has been granting a separate religious code to the members of the Scheduled Tribe community in the 2021 census. The Jharkhand assembly, on November 11, 2020, adopted a unanimous resolution demanding a separate religious code, “Sarna Adivasi Code”, in the 2021 census.

The government has also launched a fully-funded overseas scholarship programme for Jharkhand’s tribal students to pursue studies in universities in England and Ireland — a decision that has been greatly appreciated.

The government agreed to the constitution of an assembly committee to look into the alleged grabbing of tribal land, especially in urban pockets over the past several decades. Tribal land is a contentious issue in the state, with special protection guaranteed to the tribals under the Chota Nagpur Tenancy Act and the Santhal Parganas Tenancy Act. Dakhal Dihani — giving possession of grabbed land back to the original tribal owner — has been a major demand of the tribal rights groups and political representatives of the community.

And then there is a new employment policy for grade III and IV government jobs, which has made it mandatory to clear a language paper from a given list of 12 regional languages, including languages spoken by different Scheduled Tribes apart from Urdu, Bengali, and Odia. However, regional languages such as Bhojpuri, Magahi, and Angika have not been included — generating a controversy.

If one theme ties these events together, it is the centrality of the politics of identity — with a particular focus on tribal identity.

For Soren, it is tribals first

Soon after taking over the reins of power in December 2019, Soren said that in his second term as CM (he was previously the CM for 14 months before the 2014 assembly polls), he wanted to give Jharkhand the direction it needed to fulfil the objectives with which the tribal-dominated state was carved out of Bihar on November 15, 2000.

As part of his poll promise, his Cabinet, in its first meeting, decided to withdraw cases against tribals who were booked by the previous government for being involved in the Pathalgadi movement.

The government also passed a law reserving 75% of jobs within the salary bracket of 40,000 in the private sector for the locals (including non-tribals), asserting that it would provide employment opportunities to the “moolvasis” (original inhabitants) of the state. These decisions are seen as Soren’s attempt to consolidate his core vote bank, with an eye on future politics, even at the risk of causing discomfort to his allies.

“It is not only about running a government. The core issues behind the demand for a separate Jharkhand were to give identity, honour, and opportunity to the tribals and the moolvasis. And guaranteeing this is the main agenda of this government. This is why we got such a huge mandate (in 2019 assembly polls). Even if we are not able to deliver on these issues in totality, we will make sure we at least make a start.” said Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) principal general-secretary and spokesperson, Supriyo Bhattacharya.

The language debate

While JMM’s focus on tribal rights is entirely within legitimate boundaries of politics and statecraft, the debate over the issue of language in the employment policy illustrates how this focus on prioritising some identity based groups over others has generated political controversies.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was up in arms over the non-inclusion of regional languages in the employment policy, as have many groups in the northern districts of the state neighbouring Bihar — including Palamu, Garhwa, Chatra, Koderma, Giridih, Deoghar, Godda and Sahebganj; people here speak Bhojpur, Magahi, or Angika.

But, in remarks that inflamed passions even more, CM Soren said, in an interview with HT, that these are “borrowed languages” from erstwhile united Bihar. He also described the people speaking it as “dominating”, and said that some people who allegedly raped tribal women during the Jharkhand movement (for a separate state) “abused the victims in Bhojpuri”.

The statement evoked a sharp response from several quarters. Bihar CM Nitish Kumar objected, and said that Bihar respects the people of Jharkhand, and that such statements are avoidable. Leader of Opposition in the Bihar assembly, Tejashwi Yadav, whose party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), shares power in Jharkhand, did not make a direct remark against Soren’s observations, but told reporters that India was a land of multiple languages, and all of them need to be respected.

The contentious issue of domicile

While the coalition partners are denying any rift, another key debate for the ruling dispensation is fixing the domicile policy. A sub-committee will define the term “Jharkhandi” based on which a local employment policy will be implemented in the state. Fixing a cut-off year to determine who holds a domicile of the state has the potential of redrawing the political contours.

The JMM leadership has been a votary of fixing 1932 as the cut-off year to year to determine who could be called a Jharkhandi. While the Congress and RJD remain guarded in their responses on the issue, tribal leaders in the Congress intermittently make similar demands.

The BJP government, led by Raghubar Das, fixed 1985 as the cut-off year to determine domicile. However, the current dispensation cancelled the notification, and is yet to come out with a new domicile policy. The BJP has been hitting out at the government for coming up with a law to reserve 75% of jobs for locals in the private sector without determining who holds the domicile of the state.

Replying to protesting BJP legislators in the assembly during the monsoon session, CM Soren said, “The rules are being framed. You will soon know whether it would be 1932 or 1936.”

The arithmetic dictating the agenda

But as in politics anywhere, the focus on particular social constituencies is driven by electoral imperatives and calculations.

In 2019, the JMM — led by its working president, Soren — won 30 assembly seats in the House of 81, while its pre-poll allies, the Congress and the RJD, won 16 and one seat, respectively. It gave the alliance a majority of 47 against the required 41 seats to form the government. The JMM won 22 of the 28 assembly seats reserved for Scheduled Tribes, the Congress won four, and the other two went to the BJP.

Barring the BJP’s Raghubar Das, who ruled from 2014-2019, the state has always been led by a tribal face since its creation in 2000. The BJP could manage to win only two tribal seats, down from 15 in the 2014 assembly elections.

After the 2019 assembly polls, Jharkhand Vikas Morcha (Prajatantrik) or JVM(P) leader, Babulal Marandi, merged his party with the BJP. The saffron party made him its legislature party leader. Marandi is a prominent tribal face and was the first CM of Jharkhand. He had parted ways with the BJP in 2006 to form JVM(P). With this, the BJP’s experiment if toying with a non-tribal face in the state as leader more or less ended.

But there are other social constituencies too, who are seeking space and power — and ironically, that contradiction is playing out within the ruling alliance itself.

In power, a rocky alliance?

As the lead partner, Soren is leading from the front with complete control of the state government.

But the Congress, which has a major stake in the government with four ministers in the Cabinet, recently hit the streets demanding 27% of reservation for Other Backward Classes (OBCs), up from the current 14%.

Increasing the quota of OBCs in the state was a poll promise of all mainstream parties, including the JMM. However, in the ruling coalition, this agenda is more significant for the Congress and the RJD due to their support base. The BJP’s Jharkhand spokesperson, Pradeep Sinha, said that several instances have proved that either the Congress does not hold any say in the government, or they are “fooling” the people of Jharkhand.

“The Congress is in power. They have to take a decision on [the] OBC reservation as promised, but they are protesting against their own government, and ministers and legislators joined the protest. Recently a video went viral showing how Latehar deputy commissioner asked legislator and former minister, Bandhu Tirkey, who is also the working president of Jharkhand Congress, not to make visits in his area. Action should have been taken against the deputy commissioner, but nothing happened,” he added.

However, a Congress legislator said that the one-day sit-in protest for the OBC reservation was to show that the Congress is also a major player in the government and it has its independent voice despite sharing power in the coalition.

“It was more of a symbolic protest. Few promises in the manifesto have been common like the Sarna code, loan waiver, and OBC reservation. But we also have certain core issues and a difference of opinion on contentious issues. We fought the election as allies, and are running the government together. But it is equally true that in the past 20 months, the larger narrative in the public has been that all decisions are coming from one source. It is not surprising that we still don’t have a coalition coordination committee and a common minimum programme,” said the legislator, requesting anonymity.

The RJD — the biggest player in Bihar — is the junior-most partner in the current dispensation in Jharkhand, with its lone legislator in the assembly being a minister. Earlier this month, the party leadership announced that it would revamp itself and prepare to contest all 81 assembly seats in the 2024 assembly polls. Leader of Opposition in the Bihar assembly, Tejashwi Yadav, will spend at least two days in the state every month and help strengthen the party at the grassroots. Addressing party workers on September 19 in Ranchi, Yadav said that the party has the support base to regain its position in Jharkhand and it could “form or pull down any government”.

Denying any rift, Jharkhand RJD president, Abhay Singh, said that all parties are entitled to expansion. “There is no rift. We are least concerned about the decisions of this government. All parties work for their expansion. Be it the BJP, the JMM or the Congress. Our leader has simply told us to focus on the 2024 assembly polls. Our target is to contest all 81 seats and we have started working towards it,” he added.

Newly-appointed president of the Jharkhand Congress, Rajesh Thakur, also denied any rift in the coalition, even as he conceded that a coordination committee should have been put in place by now. “All parties in a coalition have core and common agendas. I have taken up this matter of forming the coordination committee with the CM. I am hopeful that it will happen soon. And as far as delivering on electoral promises is concerned, we are doing it as per our manifesto,” he said.

JMM leader, Supriyo Bhattacharya, also denied any fracture with allies saying that ultimately all electoral promises would be delivered. “Even on the front of OBC reservation, we have promised more than 27% reservation for the OBCs,” he added.

Two years after it came to power, Hemant Soren has displayed political initiative with his clear focus on tribal identity-based politics — but this political initiative itself is now possibly generating friction, both within his alliance and with the opposition. It is in the interplay of identity and electoral imperatives that Jharkhand’s future politics will evolve.

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    Vishal Kant works as an Assistant Editor with Hindustan Times. He tracks developments in Aam Aadmi Party and Delhi government. Vishal has spent about a decade covering the city politics and governance, besides writing on Delhi’s civic issues, urban transport and infrastructure.

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